Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The Greks Bring Gifts


Murray Leinster The Greks Bring Gifts (1964)
The more Leinster I read - although I should probably point out that this is only my third - the more I suspect his legend should loom at least a little larger than is presently the case. I'm not sure if he quite qualifies as a great lost master, but he's seriously fucking readable for someone you've probably never heard of, and I've yet to encounter a Murray quite so disappointing as certain crimes against fiction committed by numerous better established authors - Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson and the rest.

The Greks Bring Gifts is, as you may have guessed from the title, the story of the alien Greks arriving on earth to share the bounty of their advanced technology with us humans, but the gifts come with a price and it turns out that the Greks are complete cunts. It's almost an allegory for everything ever done by white people when arriving in foreign lands populated by persons without television, although I'm not sure the parallels are deliberate so much as that this is a tale hung from the same basic lesson - something it shares with the more recent Singularity Sky by Charles Stross from what I can recall. The story is related in the comfortable tones of an elderly neighbour spinning tales from his stoop on a warm evening, following its protagonists along a detective trail of alien technology, archaeology, and the ethics of slavery. The FBI turn up to lend a helping hand from time to time, contributing to a feeling that The Greks Bring Gifts could quite easily have been an episode of The Outer Limits, I suppose deriving from an era in which government agency was held to be something you could trust at least some of the time.

I may have made the book sound unambitious or even a little dull, but the appeal is in the telling, and Leinster had a wonderful voice. By some terms he might be regarded as a hack or simply a pulp author, churning out genre fiction across the board under a variety of different pseudonyms, one after the other; but then it can hardly be denied that he'd put in the man hours and was very, very good at his craft. His conversational narrative draws you in immediately, and keeps hold for...

Well, I have to admit, this one seemed to slacken off at about the half way mark. It isn't that it lost the plot so much as that I had a feeling of characters trying to keep themselves busy until the big pay off at the end of the book. I wonder if this might be a clue as to Leinster no longer being quite the name he once was, namely that he was simply better at the short form and was less able to sustain momentum at novel length. My previous Murrays have been a short story collection and a novel which turned out to be three short stories utilising the same character. It isn't that The Greks Bring Gifts is in any sense bad, just that it feels a little like the author would have been happier writing something with less of a page count. I'm still going to be keeping an eye out for more from this guy.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

America's Best Comics


Alan Moore etc. America's Best Comics (2004)
This is a collected edition of three variety pack style one-shots which didn't quite fit anywhere else, so I'm guessing - all written by Alan Moore, apart from a few bits and pieces from Steve Moore and Rick Veitch. The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong is quite nice, and there's a short but amusing Top 10 story, and the Jack B. Quick pages warrant a chuckle; but otherwise the best way to describe this seems to be Alan Moore just pissing about. The man has of course earned the right to piss about over the years, but the lack of focus inherent in a collection as varied as this means you tend to notice the weak links all the more; or at least I did.

Fine though The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong certainly is, I still don't really get Tom Strong. Moore hates modern superheroes and has said as much on a number of occasions, and so Tom Strong is a comic aimed fairly squarely - so far as I can see - at twelve-year old boys and maybe some girls, just as it should be, just as it was when Alan were a lad and everything was better than it is now; except those twelve-year old boys and maybe some girls don't really exist any more, and the endlessly tittersome pastiches of pulp tropes of the twenties must surely be at least a little confusing to anyone under thirty who isn't actively engaged in obsessing over the history of comics, the pulps, and so on. So maybe this is recommended reading age of twelve material written for persons in their fifties or summink, like adults going to school dinner themed discos and dancing to Tears For Fears. I don't know. It's well done and thankfully lacking the arch quality you usually get with this kind of thing, but something just doesn't sit right. Maybe it's the incongruous whiff of adult sexuality informing some of the admittedly beautiful art.

Speaking of which there's also a Cobweb strip. The Cobweb is a retro-styled superheroine who wears see-through clothing and thus defeats crims and perps who presumably fall over their own tongues when they realise they can see her TITTIES and also her FLANGE. Tee hee. The Cobweb was co-created by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie, it says in the credits, presumably just in case anyone plans on nicking such a fucking brilliant idea. I've never particularly warmed to Melinda Gebbie's work, I'm afraid, finding it borderline twee; and I'm not crazy about Dame Darcy's art either. It all feels a bit community youth project to me, but then I'm clearly an outrageous sexist who experiences daily spasms of hatred at the thought of women expressing themselves, or indeed having jobs or engaging in any activity outside of either the bedroom or kitchen. Although I wouldn't regard myself as an unreasonable man, and women certainly shouldn't be chained to the cooker as some might suggest. The chains should be of sufficient length as to allow them to serve meals to their menfolk, should the menfolk be watching sports in the lounge.

Maybe if Tom Strong occasionally whipped out his pecker and used it to beat lawbreakers into submission, maybe that would even it out a little.

Most of what we have here may well be superior to the competition, and the art is mostly wonderful, but it's all a bit confused taken as a whole - too straight-arsed to be underground, and yet a little too cranky to be mainstream, and The First First American could almost have been a sketch on Crackerjack and is as such a complete waste of Sergio Aragones.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Batman Incorporated


Grant Morrison & Jim Nick Nick Davidson Batman Incorporated (2012)
Ever since Stewart Lee described him as such, I can't quite pull back from thinking of the guy as Batman the children's character, and probably because I've never really found him that interesting. Although I haven't read it in a while, I recall loving Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns in which our man is portrayed as a vicious nutcase, which seems about right. He's more or less a vicious nutcase here, but a vicious nutcase inhabiting a story which may as well be derived from the goofy 1960s television show, albeit a version of the  goofy 1960s television show without much in the way of humour.

The story is that Batman, having decided that crime is a disease and that there's only one cure and so on and so forth, trains a whole team of international Batmans so as to cure the disease of crime on a global scale. It starts well enough, and seems beautifully told regardless of whatever it is that's actually being told, and then it sort of gets lost in an undifferentiated mush of narrative and stuff you might understand if you're some kind of Batman expert, which I'm not. I'm all for showing rather than telling so as to instil a comic book with the portentous atmosphere of a Fassbinder film, but occasionally it helps to tell your audience what the fuck is happening, particularly when what you're showing is mainly ingenious plot points and obscure references to Jorge Luis Borges punctuated with scenes of Batman kicking someone's head in. It tends to give the impression that the point of this comic is principally as a vehicle for Jim Davidson's beautifully cinematic illustrations of Batman descending upon ne'er-do-wells from tree, balcony or tall building and then kicking their heads in; so it's more or less Judge Dredd, except there's a point to Judge Dredd and it's usually funnier.

Come to think of it, I very much enjoyed Keith Giffen's Batman in the old Justice League comics, but then the point of that Batman was giving the other characters something to take the piss out of.

Raving Communist that I apparently must be, the thing I took from Batman Incorporated is more or less the same thing I take from Donald Trump's presidential campaign - tough on crime but protect your investment in the causes of crime, so let's get the drug dealers and kick their heads in and shit. Chavs too - let's add them to the list whilst we're here, the greedy bag-snatching work-shy fuckers.

Conversely, I suppose you might point out that we also have a Native American Batman here - which is a nice idea - and Morrison takes the trouble to explain in the appendix how he identifies and empathises with the slow genocide of the native American because he went to a reservation and it was a lot like some parts of Glasgow.

Great.

Well, it's not so much an appendix as pages of Jim Davidson's preliminary sketches, mostly of amazing new character sensations - some of whom you'll miss if you blink whilst reading the actual comic - notarised by Morrison listing the obscure 1950s issue of Detective Comics in which they first appeared.

Also there are schoolgirls wearing stockings and suspenders, like they do. Phwoaar! Eh? Eh? They love it!

I have no idea what I've just read, but it wasn't for me.

Jim Davidson didn't really draw it by the way. I just couldn't be arsed to type out the four million names of those who did, although they all did a really tremendous job.

Great.



Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Greybeard


Brian Aldiss Greybeard (1965)
Just to recap, the things which drive me nuts when it comes to Brian Aldiss are principally his dismissal of John Wyndham as an author of cosy catastrophes - as Brian termed them - and that he writes such bloody awful short stories, which I discovered the hard way, picking up no less than five Aldiss short story collections second hand before I'd realised any of this; and of course it's rare that I'll leave a book unread or unfinished no matter how painful it gets. These things drive me particularly nuts because they contrast so starkly with how great his writing can be at its absolute best, by which I'm referring to the novels.

Greybeard occurs after the collapse of civilisation with the dwindling remains of humanity living a pseudo-mediaeval existence in the wilderness. The Accident has left everyone sterile, so no children have been born for a while, and the youngest generation are now in their fifties. It comes fairly close to pastoral science-fiction in the tradition of Simak, although I've a feeling this may actually be Aldiss saying Oi Wyndham! This is how it's supposed to be done, it being a distinctly Wyndhamesque catastrophe stripped of those supposedly cosy elements, and certainly there's nothing too comforting here; although we tend not to notice this, the focus being on the main characters surviving from one moment to the next.

Curiously, Greybeard seems to hold some clues as to why the novels of Aldiss work so much better than his shorter pieces. As I've mentioned in previous reviews, his great strength seems to be in the environments with which he populates his people - always something familiar by some terms but distorted into weird, unorthodox shapes; Greybeard's world is accordingly familiar and yet utterly alien, and is mapped out in the behaviour of the people who live there, which I guess requires a decent page count. Perhaps it is simply that Aldiss doesn't get the room to do this, to really expand, in short form, so the settings are sketchy with the narrative reliant on details at which he is less adept. Greybeard is punctuated by three flashback sequences to times before and during the Accident, all taking place in more familiar domestic settings, but significantly less engaging than the main part of the tale, not least because they don't really tell us anything we don't already know, and they almost read as parodies of Wyndham - the usual stuff with rationing and barricades and assorted colonels discussing what is to be done.

Anyway, minor reservations aside, Greybeard is beautifully written beyond expectation and has the sort of narrative confidence which really makes me wonder how it never - at least not to my knowledge - became a classroom standard alongside Lord of the Flies and others, seeing as how Golding's book gets a mention on the cover of my copy. Aldiss will be ninety this year, and given that we're no longer exactly swimming in science-fiction authors of either his vintage or stature, we should probably make the effort to appreciate him whilst we can.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Seaguy


Grant Morrison & Cameron Stewart Seaguy (2005)
Having been looking in the other direction when this came out, I was slightly pissed off to find it apparently only available for silly money on Amazon and eBay - silly money here meaning lots of dollars rather than payment by fish, hamburgers, lego bricks or whatever; so I was hugely chuffed to find a copy at Half Price Books for less than the cover price. I guess somebody screwed-up.

Seaguy was sold to me as something wonderful during discussion generally themed along the lines of how The Invisibles is shit and Grant Morrison disappeared up his own arse around 1998 and is yet to resurface - Seaguy and We3 being exceptions to a general trend. True enough, it's decent, and it commits none of the sins of his absolute worst writing, although I probably wouldn't go so far as to call it a classic. I suppose it's sort of like David Bowie's Black Tie White Noise, which was actually somewhat shite and yet seemingly garnered a fairly respectable reputation through sheer force of relief that at least it wasn't fucking Never Let Me Down.

Just to get it out of the way, I can't help but notice some faint similarity to Underwater Guy from Shannon Wheeler's wonderful Too Much Coffee Man, but anyway...




Seaguy is sort of like Morrison's Doom Patrol as a Saturday morning cartoon - all primary colours and things that only make sense if you live in a Hanna-Barbera version of reality.

...actually, Chubby da Choona is a lot like Billy the Fish from Viz, come to think of it...

Where was I?

On the surface of it, Seaguy is mostly enjoyable surrealism and general stupidity, but knowing some of Morrison's preoccupations I have a feeling it may also constitute some kind of statement on comic book narrative. The narrative is full of big ideas and improbable concepts provided without explanation, and none of the adventures or scrapes encountered by Seaguy and his fish buddy ever quite play out to the end or amount to anything, just like in a Saturday morning cartoon show. We get evasions and distraction rather than conclusions, at least up to the point at which Chubby comes to a peculiarly realistic and gruesome end, before quickly hitting the reset button and we start over again with a new animal sidekick. I suspect the point of this amounts to two fingers up at the supposedly gritty and realistic comic narrative as supposedly introduced by Alan Moore - perhaps represented here as the She-Beard, which itself suggests the slightly odd possibility of Morrison wanting to shag Northampton's finest.

The message is, I suppose, nothing deeper than this shit is more fun than all that frowning; which is fine, because they don't all have to be the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. So I wouldn't call Seaguy a masterpiece, but there's nevertheless plenty to like.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Count Zero


William Gibson Count Zero (1986)
It was the only one I hadn't read, and I have a feeling I may even have owned a copy once before without ever having got around to it, so despite everything I thought why not? The reason why not can be gleaned from the contents of the aforementioned everything - or at least everything I've read except Pattern Recognition, which is great - namely that whilst William Gibson wields a positively breathtaking turn of phrase and his sentences are frequently assemblages of great poetic beauty, his novels can be mystifyingly dull and incomprehensible. At least that's how I've found a few of them, and Count Zero is unfortunately in this tradition. His narrative is all about surface, fixating on the details of gadgets, gizmos, products, and labels, which initially makes for a fairly vivid read but gets repetitive after a while, particularly in combination with largely interchangeable personality-free characters whose job is seemingly to provide definition for the gadgets, gizmos, products, and labels. I suppose otherwise the book would just be a list of stuff.

As I've probably said in previous reviews of Gibson novels which I'm probably just rewriting because I can't be bothered to go back and read what I've already said, and in any case the same applies here, I suspect he's making some sort of point about the shared hallucination of society as an artificial construct held together only by everyone agreeing to play the game; and I suspect Gibson's cyberspace is a metaphor for this; as are the attendant references to voodoo and numerous loa which appear throughout this one, but not with quite the frequency or depth to make it as interesting as - just off the top of my head - Lawrence Miles' This Town Will Never Let Us Go. On the other hand, I took the talking book version of Distrust That Particular Flavour - Gibson's collected essays as read by himself - out of the library recently, and he just sounded like some dribbling hipster burbling on about buying really rare Soviet wristwatches on eBay, so perhaps the focus on surface is really all there is to this stuff.

Surface was more or less all I could follow after the first fifty or so pages, that being the point at which I'd ceased caring who was who, what they were doing, or why. I made it to page two-hundred with forty left to go, then Mark Hodder sent me a few chapters of his next book so as to get a second opinion, and it looked about a billion times more engaging than this droning shite; and then David Bowie pegged it, and life suddenly felt too short to bother with Zero on the Clapometer.

Perhaps one day I'll give it another go and I will enjoy it a little more, but right now I just can't be arsed.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

The Complete Nemesis the Warlock volume one


Pat Mills, Kevin O'Neill, Jesus Redondo & Bryan Talbot
The Complete Nemesis the Warlock volume one (2006)

Considering how much I enjoyed this, it seems strange to think that Nemesis the Warlock was instrumental in my giving up on 2000AD way back whenever. Specifically it was a combination of regular strips going down the toilet along with slightly shitty new material such as The Mean Arena, Meltdown Man and Comic Rock. Okay, Comic Rock only ran to three episodes, but even at the age of fifteen I could tell that the premise of Thargtastic thrills based on top pop parade hits was a bit of a dad in a backwards baseball cap.

'Fuck this!' I exclaimed, throwing the sponge with which I'd been washing shoe polish from a pig into the murky waters of the tub. 'I'm going to spend my fourteen pence on something else.'

Then about a year later a friend gave me a big stack of more recent water-damaged 2000ADs which had been ruined when the pipes burst in his house during a cold spell. I hadn't really thought about the comic since I stopped buying, but it looked like it had got some of its mojo back so I got to work on drying them out, one issue at a time. I didn't recognise half of the stuff in there, and it took me a while to recognise Nemesis as having spun off from its Kenny Everett cameo-having origins as suggested by the album Killer Watts, the tough lovin' hard rockin' collection that brought you Journey, REO Speedwagon, Ted Nugent, Rick Derringer's Need a Little Girl (Just Like You) and many, many more - woaoao
aoaoaoaowoaoaoaaarrrrggghhhhhhhhh yeeeeeaaaaahhhhh! Let's rock!

Ahem.

Nemesis the Warlock, as you probably already know, was essentially dystopian future as one of the more disturbing works of Heironymus Bosch with the forces of exciting weirdness pitted against an evil censorious state based on the Inquisition, and it could really only have come from Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill with the perfect combination of piss and vinegar in sledgehammer scripting offset by what probably remains some of the weirdest, most hallucinatory material that O'Neill ever drew. The beauty of Mills writing is revealed here - if beauty is quite the right term - as something big, crude, and of sufficient stupidity to work as a kids' comic strip told five pages at a time, garnished with genuine wit and a strong sense of purpose; and he's probably never quite enjoyed the reputation of a Morrison or Moore because he made it look so easy, and because of how quickly we forget all the stuff like Meltdown Man which may have aimed for similar effect but got the balance hopelessly wrong.

The importance of O'Neill becomes apparent in this collection with books two and four of the saga, drawn respectively by Jesus Redondo and then Bryan Talbot. Whilst it may be a minority view, Redondo remains one of the greatest artists ever to draw for 2000AD in my opinion. Every panel is beautiful, a real work of art, and yet with the possible exception of Mind Wars, he never really seemed to get the break of a regular strip with which his name would become associated, and by which he could really show what he was capable of. His work on Nemesis is characteristically wonderful - not least the sequence of the Vestal Vampire, having taken a vow of silence, attempting to mime that which she has been told by the disembodied spirit of Torquemada - but in the wider context book two sadly remains a Nemesis strip which wasn't drawn by Kevin O'Neill. The same is unfortunately true of Bryan Talbot's Luther Arkwright variant, The Gothic Empire - it's fucking brilliant, but it still isn't Kevin O'Neill. I've encountered the additional criticism that The Gothic Empire was the point at which Nemesis the Warlock lost it a bit as Mills started throwing various ABC Warriors into the mix, but that aspect doesn't bother me. It's just the sort of thing Pat Mills does, and that's why we love him. Moaning aside, this is still one of the finest British comics ever published by my estimation.